Dr. Mona's Mom Blog

Handling public tantrums

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How to prepare, manage, and reframe your mindset for tantrums

Public tantrums happen to all children and in this blog, I go over how to prepare, manage, and reframe your mindset when they happen.
We’ve all been there (or will be there). Public tantrums happen to all children. In this blog, I go over how to prepare, manage, and reframe your mindset when they happen.

What are tantrums?

If someone tells you that their child has never had a public tantrum, they likely are not in public enough. Every toddler will have one at some point. We cannot control their emotions and they may have these big emotions in public. I define public as anywhere outside your home – a park, an airplane, a store, a birthday party – basically anywhere where other people besides your immediate family may be. 

Children’s emotions can’t be controlled

The hardest part of public tantrums are the stares and judgment. In my opinion, there is nothing worse than trying to do what you feel is best with your child and getting the piercing eyes of strangers or commentary. For example, “Can you shut that kid up?” Yup. I’ve seen it all.

The people who usually criticize or become annoyed with a child’s public meltdown are usually people who don’t have a child or have children and have forgotten this very normal phase. I’ve also found that most of them are elderly—so I give them the benefit of the doubt that they likely just want some peace and quiet. 

But unfortunately, children’s emotions cannot be controlled. They’re human. They’re still learning about their emotions, and sometimes those big feelings WILL happen in public.

How I approach public tantrums

I approach the discussion of public tantrums in three phases:

  1. Prepare
  2. Manage
  3. Assess

#1 – Prepare

Preparation is helpful, but PLEASE manage your expectations. I find people prepare and prepare for a certain situation with their child. Then when it doesn’t pan out like they expect, they are met with frustration and disappointment. Your child is a child and this isn’t an exam you can prepare for and ace. There is a toddler or child brain that has their own mind and wishes that can’t always be controlled. 

Public tantrums are more likely to happen when tantrums in general are more likely – for example, if a child is tired or hungry. You can plan ahead by planning the event around nap or sleep times or taking snacks/meals on the go according to their schedule. This isn’t always possible. Do your best with your routine and the public events/tasks that need to be done. 

Public tantrums can also happen due to boredom, so it’s okay to bring a favorite toy or security item. Only bring it out if you need it. I recommend this because I do like children to experience the sights and sounds of their surroundings and normalize that boredom is okay. Only use these as a last resort if needed (you notice them getting very fidgety AKA before a meltdown). 

#2 – Manage

  • Take a deep breath. You are not alone. It may feel so incredibly isolating at that moment because the judgmental eyes are looking at you, but in this moment I want you to imagine that it’s you and your child in a room alone. Block out the noise, commentary, and focus on this moment as one you and your child will get through together. Nobody else staring is the parent of your child. YOU got this and you’re a rockstar. 
  • Manage the tantrum as you would at home. We often feel like in public we have to put on a show or do something different, but remember that this IS a tantrum that is just in a public place. Get down to their level, verbalize, stroke their back, or simply just let them have their moment. Yelling threats or spanking are not recommended (both in public or at home). You may consider distraction to interesting things in the environment or with a toy. Offer points of control if they’re feeling dysregulated so they feel in control when their emotions are not. This could look like kneeling down and holding out two toys and letting them choose one. In some cases, they may cry more but sometimes it does help. I try to avoid distracting with cell phones or tablets in public places when they are in the middle of the tantrum to reduce their reliance on needing these when they’re upset. It’s fine to have these on hand while you’re waiting, but don’t let their tears be the reason you take the screen out.
  • Don’t explain social norms in the middle of the meltdown: “You have to be quiet” seems like it will work but when a child is in the middle of a meltdown, their brain is not comprehending logic. You need to meet the emotional side of their brain that is firing right now with understanding and patience. Yes, it’s hard. But it’s helpful.
  • Consider leaving, but you don’t always have to. If the event is a quiet event and your child is having a tantrum you can make the decision to go into a corner or leave the room. Here’s a story: Ryaan had an epic meltdown in a long line at a café on a vacation. It was breakfast and he was hangry. But, we stayed in the line as he cried for food he could see in the display. I brought some toys. But, none of it mattered when he was so dysregulated. I thought about leaving, but then I would lose my place in line. It would take longer to get the food he wanted. So, I made the decision to stay. I knelt down to him as he sat in his stroller and just stroked his back as he cried. I initially talked and verbalized his feelings but then I realized that my silence and presence was enough. He cried for what felt like an eternity (it wasn’t) and we finally made it to the front of the line. I calmly (albeit this was HARD) ordered and handed him the parfait he saw and wanted. Before handing him the parfait, I asked him to take some deep breaths with me to regulate himself. Once he calmed down, I handed him the parfait. 

We oftentimes feel we need to leave and I think this is 100% reasonable for events where an exit is possible or the event is more quiet. But, sometimes you MAY stay. Sometimes you HAVE to stay. Because sometimes you will be in Target and you have to finish your shopping list. Sometimes you will be on an airplane waiting to deboard. There will be moments where you can’t leave with your toddler or you need to finish what you’re doing and that is okay. It’s up to you to decide if you will leave or stay by assessing the situation and your child’s behavior, without judgement by others. 

#3 – Assess

  • Debrief after the public tantrum. Public tantrums can feel overwhelming and embarrassing, but remember that the debrief can really help you. Once your child has calmed down, remind them that they are safe and they are loved. Then, talk about what happened. You can’t do this in the middle of a state of dysregulation, but the talking can also help you calm down by talking it out. Tantrums take a lot out of us as parents, especially those public ones. Talking and debriefing (even with a toddler or child) can really help. 
  • We can’t teach our child about experiences if we don’t expose them. I know so many parents who are so afraid of public tantrums that they just don’t expose their children to events and places. “It’s not worth it.” It’s okay to feel this way, but I don’t want you to feel stuck or isolated feeling you can’t do activities. Try to plan as mentioned above – around sleep, around meals, and bring snacks or toys as needed. Even if it is that iPAD. Do what YOU need to get out and get home.

For anybody reading this that may not have a child or have never had a child have a public tantrum, have some compassion for the parents managing this. NO parent WANTS their child to have a tantrum. It just happens. 

Phrases to try during public tantrums

  • “I see you’re really upset because of XYZ. I understand and we will be done soon.”
  • “I can tell you really wanted XYZ, but we can’t have it right now. Would you like this or this?” Then put up other options.
  • “I see you’re really upset. Mommy is right here. Take your moment if you need it. I’m not going anywhere.”

These can be used for tantrums where you are strolling around with them in a store, in an airport, or any place where you need to finish a task and can’t leave. It’s important to approach these statements in a matter of fact tone versus a question or with frustration. Do this so they understand that their big feelings don’t bother you and we have to continue on. Sometimes, it’s also okay to just get really quiet and control your body language and facial expressions. Then, let them have their moment. I have done this and have also seen parents across the world (when I travel) do this, too. We can normalize letting our child feel and not constantly try to fix it. Your calm presence is something they will notice. 

Don’t permit physical behaviors

Hold space for their emotions, but don’t permit physical behaviors. If you do stay, remember that it’s okay for them to have BIG feelings, but they can’t throw hit, kick, bite, or physically hurt anybody during the tantrum. Same concept as you would hold at home. If that’s happening, we have to remove ourselves from the situation to allow time to regulate or be very consistent on the boundary. “I see you’re upset, but you can’t throw your toy. If you throw your toy, mommy takes it.” If they throw, you take the toy as a calm follow through.  

Remember you are not alone!

Every parent has been where you are. I have training and experience in child development and behavior and I can tell you with 100% humility that my son has public tantrums. I know how to navigate them, debrief, and grow. That is what I want to impart onto you. I used to be scared to go places alone with Ryaan in fear of public meltdowns. Yet I realized that the only thing I was really afraid of was judgement. 

When approaching parenting, it’s important to really try to block out the judgement and reframe in these moments so you can think more clearly. Judgement makes us do things we may normally not do out of fear of looking bad or that you’re not doing enough. But, you are. You are navigating your child’s big feelings in a public place. And that IS enough. 

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All information presented on this blog, my Instagram, and my podcast is for educational purposes and should not be taken as personal medical advice. These platforms are to educate and should not replace the medical judgment of a licensed healthcare provider who is evaluating a patient.

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